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Read to Learn

Editorial: There are better ways forward than 'book bans'

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Library

Sienna Nottingham talked with her grandmother, Celestine Doctor-Smith, about a recommended book in the children’s section of Henrico County’s Fairfield Area Library.

At the end of April, Gov. Glenn Youngkin and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers gathered at the Library of Virginia to sign one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in the 2022 session.

The Virginia Literacy Act aims to strengthen reading resources and student performance in grades K-3, through more specialists, programs and other services.

“The most important thing we can do, as parents, as educators, and as a community, is ensure our children learn to read, so that they can read to learn,” Youngkin said in a statement.

While lawmakers in Richmond agreed on why children need to read, localities across the commonwealth have endured divides over what kinds of books should be in students’ hands, especially as they mature. Months-long fights over titles to censor are a poor use of time. There are better ways forward than “book bans.”

In early May, The Times-Dispatch published a data-driven piece, finding 23 Virginia school divisions had removed books over a two-year period. The most challenged book was Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” an “autobiographical graphic novel by a nonbinary and asexual author,” the RTD analysis found.

Within weeks of that story being published, objections to “Gender Queer” accelerated in Virginia Beach, in both public and private capacities. The book was removed from area school libraries. Del. Tim Anderson and former U.S. congressional candidate Tommy Altman, also filed a lawsuit to halt sales of “Gender Queer” and Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury” to kids at bookstores, without parental consent.

“A minor can’t walk into an R-rated movie in a movie theater without their parent’s consent, [and] kids shouldn’t have access to extremely sexual material without their parent’s consent,” Anderson contended in a WVEC-TV report. He added the lawsuit’s objective is “not about banning books,” but rather a stand for parental choice.

Reason magazine countered in its recent “Banned Books Issue,” calling the lawsuit a “bizarre extension of the school library book ban into the private sector, one that was clearly unconstitutional, politically motivated, and ultimately pointless.”

“The books have very little in common other than the fact that both deal with sex,” the piece argued. “But as anyone who has ever stood agog in the romance aisle of a Barnes & Noble knows, they are hardly the only two books to do so.”

On Aug. 30, a Virginia Beach Circuit Court will determine if a dated, obscure segment of the Code of Virginia applies in the Virginia Beach suit. As the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia explained in late June:

“Under the statute, the court has the authority to temporarily block all sale and distribution of the books anywhere in Virginia upon a mere finding of ‘probable obscenity.’ And, if the court ultimately determines that the books are indeed obscene, anyone who sells or even lends the books in Virginia could face criminal prosecution, regardless of whether they had prior knowledge of the obscenity proceedings. This would impact all independent bookstores and other distributors in the state of Virginia, even if they have no knowledge that a book has been so much as challenged.”

There are better ways forward. Steps from the State Capitol, the Richmond Public Library links patrons with “The Bookologist”: a service where staff members connect readers of all ages with new favorites.

Families can fill out a form identifying their children’s ages, authors and books they already love, and their “perfect book” in 3-5 words. The Bookologist uses that feedback to compile choices, and kids then pick up the books at their local library.

“Whether you’re stuck in a reading rut, looking to read outside your comfort zone, or just looking for great suggestions, The Bookologist can help,” said a flyer at RPL’s main branch.

No matter where you live in the commonwealth, the Virginia Readers’ Choice Program also is an invaluable resource for book lists that build a love of reading.

For more than 40 years, thousands of students attending hundreds of different schools have come together annually to vote for their favorites. The program is a partnership involving the Virginia State Literacy Association, the Virginia Association of School Librarians, the Virginia Library Association and the Library of Virginia Youth Services.

The criteria for books are simple. A title must be “recognized as noteworthy in the field of children’s/young adult literature,” “published within three years prior to the ballot on which it appears” and “ appropriate for the level for which they are nominated.”

The participation terms are straightforward. Students have to be “exposed to at least four nominated books at each level in their entirety,” either through independent reading or reading aloud with help from others. They can vote through a public library, school library or classroom, and a “responsible adult” supervises the process.

The purpose, as outlined by the VSLA, is crystal clear: “To encourage young readers to become better acquainted with contemporary books with outstanding literary appeal, to broaden students’ awareness of literature as a life-long pleasure, to encourage reading aloud in classrooms as a means of introducing reading for pleasure, and to honor favorite books and their authors.”

Virginians should respect the views of their neighbors who decide a certain book is not right for their children to read. But rather than lean on a dated, obscure law that builds more barriers than bridges, let’s elevate resources that guide students toward a love for reading, in ways that preserve their own choices.

— Chris Gentilviso

Chris Gentilviso is Opinions editor. Contact him at: cgentilviso@timesdispatch.com

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